It is almost impossible to comprehend what has been happening at the West Park Presbyterian Church on Amsterdam Avenue at 86th Street this month. The entire eight-play Wars of the Roses cycle of Shakespeare's histories (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Henry V, Henry VI Parts One, Two, and Three, and Richard III), cut minimally, is being performed in repertory six days a week, with three plays on Saturdays, through March 4. And 12 actors do it all.
This sweeping project comes from twentysomething Marc Silberschatz, who founded the company, Twenty Feet Productions, just two years ago and last season cut his teeth on the two parts of Henry IV in collaboration with the York Shakespeare Company. In addition to directing all the plays, he assumes the title role in the Henry VI trilogy, plays subordinate roles in the other plays, handles publicity, and sometimes sells tickets at the door. Total budget: $8,000.
One immediately thinks all this cannot possibly be good. It is hard enough to mount one respectable production with twice as many players and a hundred times the budget. But judging from Richard II, the one play I have seen thus far, the results are quite astounding. The reason is that this mammoth effort runs on the power of the plays themselves and on the passion and perspicacity of the actors presenting them.
There are no sets; the church is set enough, with its spacious sanctuary, elevated and carved-wood preaching area, and balcony. The lighting is basically off-and-on. The costumes range from thrift-shop to clothes-closet. No pyrotechnics, no revolving stages, no pheromonal attractants, no haute couture. But who needs all that folderol anyway, those strained attempts to contemporize, contextualize, distract, disguise? It is the words, and the knowing movement around the words, that make Shakespeare work. And it works here.
The actors, mostly young, are unpaid. They rehearsed all eight plays together as a unit, four to five hours a day, five days a week, for four months. Each actor plays 20 or more parts in the cycle, and when the same character appears in succeeding plays, the actor retains the role throughout.
Oh yes, and one more thing: the casting is gender-neutral. Among the major figures, for example, King Henry IV is played by a woman, Queen Margaret of Anjou by a man.
Richard II is a good place for the theatergoer to start this remarkable journey, both because its subject is the king whose vanity and avarice precipitated the devastating hundred-year Wars of the Roses between the related houses of Lancaster and York that the eight plays encompass, and because it is the most poetically pure of the cycle. With no big battle scenes, no comic relief, and written entirely in verse, it challenges the actors to bring the characters alive by virtue of their interpretation of the text alone. And by and large, they do it.
Seth Duerr, an experienced Shakespearean, commanding in stature and physically expressive, plays King Richard forcefully, if perhaps too cautiously. The precipitous crumbling of a seemingly invincible personality calls for a turnaround much more drastic than he offers.
Bending gender, Kymberly Tuttle is cast in the crucial role of Henry Bolingbroke, who deposes his cousin Richard and takes the crown for himself as Henry IV. Steely, sober, calculating, brutal, Tuttle portrays him rightly. However, she's over a head shorter than her rival, with short blond hair and a face to die for, and dressed in form-fitting black to boot. She thus challenges the willing suspension of one's disbelief. Yet there is something convincing about her, and only later did I realize what it is: she bears a certain resemblance to...Hillary Clinton. This may work after all.
Of the three other women taking men's roles, Nicole Maggi as Henry Percy the Elder affords a dash more belief. She's built tough, looks tough, and acts tough, like an NYPD cop. But even her best efforts at masculinity are sometimes thwarted in competition with the bushy-bearded and impetuous Ryan Patrick Ervin as Percy's up-and-coming son Hotspur.